Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

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image credit: Heywood Hill

“Can you get it today?”

There are a lot of reasons to find Amazon unappealing. I know that they have done some valuable work in the sense that they provide a much bigger platform for self-published authors, and even through a veil of retained snobbery, I can recognise that that’s a good thing for a lot of people. It’s pretty clear, though, that they also engage in deeply unsavoury business practices (the Hachette price wars); depressing – though evidently unsuccessful – attempts to break into bricks-and-mortar bookselling; and services like Mechanical Turk, which lets you hire humans to do jobs that computers can’t do, which sounds great until you actually try to sign up for it as a worker, at which point you realise that the tasks are generally painfully menial, you have no way to negotiate with prospective employers, and you’d have to do six hundred of these tasks per day in order to make anything like a decent wage.

They contribute, in other words, to the service economy that we now have, which convinces consumers that anything, any commodity that you can possibly imagine, should be available to you within two hours. Services like Quiqup, Deliveroo and Uber are entirely reliant on this. Amazon drone delivery is a service designed with this in mind. It fosters the idea that you should never have to wait for anything, ever, if you can afford not to.

These are companies that are built on hundreds of thousands of backs, mostly belonging to people who provide unskilled and low-paid labour. It is the only way this particular business model works; the only way that you can get a pizza, or a pair of shoes, physically delivered to you in under an hour is to have an army of people standing by, just waiting for you to order it.

Small, independent businesses do not work like that, and so it always baffles me when a customer – piqued that we cannot, in fact, special-order something for delivery in under an hour – chooses to vent their distress by informing us that they “only shop here to support small businesses and fight Amazon.” You cannot support a small business if you expect it to be doing what Amazon does. If you support a small business, you have to understand what you are sacrificing, and what you will receive in return. As a consumer, you sacrifice a lot of your power: you can only walk out of a small business with whatever is on the shelf at the time; if you order something, you will need to wait – probably no more than 24 hours, because deliveries happen once a day, but waiting is an anomaly for consumers now.

But what you get in return is something magical: people who love what they’re doing. People who will spend half an hour with you, if you are friendly and interested, picking out books that they think you would like. People who will talk to a regular customer about her dog, her kids, her holidays, what she’d like to read next. (Although this deserves a caveat: we’re at work, and just like you in your office, we don’t always have all the time in the world for a catch-up, particularly if you’re regular, but not always a regular customer, if you see what I mean. More on this in another post.) People who know what’s over-hyped and what’s underrated; people who can size you up the second you walk in the door; people who, on their best days, can pluck exactly what you need from a shelf you didn’t even notice. If you have a good independent bookshop nearby, that’s what you’ve got: a building full of witches, of knowledge and instinct and experience. That’s the edge we have over Amazon: you should buy books here not because it’ll make you feel better about your lifestyle, like a smug purchaser of farmer’s market aubergines, but because the results in the long-term are generally better. We can introduce you to authors and books that an algorithm might never have shown you; that sort of thing can change a person’s life.

If you’re not willing to give up immediacy, that’s okay! Some people don’t need or want a high level of personal attention; they want what they know they like, right away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s exactly what Amazon is good for. But if you do earnestly want to support local independent businesses, understand what that means.

(Endnote: I should tell you that there has been one occasion, as far as I know, in the history of the shop, where we exerted ourselves on someone’s behalf to get them a surprising quantity of the same title in the same day. The only way it was possible to do this was to literally walk to Waterstone’s and buy twelve of their copies, walk them back to our shop, and charge the customer. The customer was entirely content with this arrangement. As you’ll have gathered, this was a pretty unusual interaction.)

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller: I

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“Why is it so expensive?”

It is that expensive because that is how much it costs.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is that things cost as much as people are willing to pay for them; that rarity and relative condition are important (and “relative” is often the key word); and that, yes, we are asking you to trust us.

I get asked this question much more frequently about our old and rare stock than about our new stock, and it’s a question I find hard to answer because I am not a trained antiquarian bookseller. I’m a new bookseller, with all of the reading and information bias that suggests. We are about to lose our antiquarian guy, and no one currently at the shop is really equipped to take his place. The amount of stuff it is possible to know about old books is almost endless: provenance, bindings, endpapers, condition, foxing, spines. I have considered getting a Masters degree in or around the subject, but there are people with lifetimes’ more experience than a year-long course will get you, and again: I’m a new bookseller. Old books are objects of intellectual interest to me, not of passion.

The one thing I do know, the one thing that our guy has impressed upon me, is the significance of trust in the old and rare books trade. Plenty of dealers are untrustworthy, in that they will take you for far more than something is really worth, just because it’s old and you look gullible enough to think that matters; or they will misdescribe something in a catalogue, in a way qualitative enough that you can’t really call them on it. In that sense, I suppose, it’s like any other business. So scoping out the place, and the people you’ll be dealing with, before you go in is smart.

But that’s not what this question is; this question never comes from someone who has done their research. This question comes from casual buyers, very rarely account-holders, and it’s designed to make us doubt ourselves. It’s a cheap trick used by cheap people, and like most cheap tricks, it only works on people who don’t really know what they’re doing.

We do. We do know what we’re doing. I did, just above, admit to not being an antiquarian bookseller, but that doesn’t make me an idiot; it means that my response to that question is going to be “The price is as marked”, until my colleague informs me otherwise. Because he’s my colleague and I trust his judgment. As, if you’re going to do business with us, should you.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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  1. Two and a half weeks into the new job, and I LOVE it. In week one, I handsold books I’d been raving about on this very blog to real people, which was such a great introduction to the many ways in which bookselling is essentially a practical application of reviewing. At the end of week two, I got the nod to manage our social media accounts on a trial basis until April, which is amazingly exciting. On Monday I went with two colleagues to sell books at an event with brilliant American philosopher Daniel Dennett. I am so bloody lucky.
  2. My grandpa had a mild stroke last week (he’s doing well, home from hospital, and recovering incredibly swiftly), so I went down to visit him and my grandmother over the weekend. They live in a village by the South Downs that’s so ridiculously lovely it’s practically fictional. Everyone there is either a retired brigadier or related to a duchess. My auntie came down too and we had some gorgeous walks with the (horrible little) dogs.
  3. On the other hand, it turns out that working a full week, then handling someone else’s ironing, recycling, dishwashing and phone contract admin for two days, then going back to work on Monday, is tiring.
  4. The other day I had to skip my morning coffee and by 11:30 a.m. had acquired a headache that lasted on and off until 5 p.m. This is Not A Good Sign.
  5. We’re going to France for four days on Friday and I don’t know which books to bring. I have two review copies, Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf, which I will definitely finish in four days. Should I bring them both, or bring one and then knock out one or two of the books on my phone? Or should I bring one of the books I’ve been allowed to take home from work because they’re damaged: Swing Time by Zadie Smith, The Dry by Jane Harper, and Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett? Or should I bring the proof I just got today from a debut author: Larchfield by Polly Clark? SO MANY CHOICES. (Seriously, if you have an opinion, let me know. I need help.)
  6. Right now I’m reading Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning Days Without End, as a buddy read with the indomitable Esther of Esther Writes. (You heard me! Stay tuned.) Holy moly. It’s so dense, the writing is so thick with imagery and none of it is strained or pathetic, and it reminds me of so many different things at once. It reads a little like a more poetic True History of the Kelly Gang, though there are also very light shades of Blood Meridian. It is really superb.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous. Link back, say hi.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous, to whom I often forget to give credit, which is bad.

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  1. I have a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT, and it is this: I am now officially a bookseller again! I’m starting at Heywood Hill (a small but perfectly formed shop in Mayfair; you may have seen it in Vanity Fair or profiled recently in the Times) on Monday. I could not possibly be more excited. The shop runs Year in Books subscriptions (twelve or six months, depending on your preferences and budget, with a new hardback book, hand-picked by us booksellers and tailored to your personal literary tastes, delivered to you each month) and helps to build private libraries as well as just, you know, selling books. I am overwhelmed with delight at the idea of actually being paid to do this. Please, if you are in or near London, come and visit me!
  2. Over the weekend, I was singing at a gig in the church of St Mary-le-Bow (late C19 French choral music, if you’re interested), and had to run out during a rehearsal break to buy a black folder from a nearby Rymans. I also picked up a four-pack of black fine-point Uniball pens, because they’re the best pens of all time, and handwriting the novel has suddenly become extra enjoyable. Seriously, writing with these things is a sheer delight: a perfect, smooth line, a balanced weight in the hand… I love them.
  3. All of my makeup is running out. I’ve been reduced to smearing my ever-flatter lipstick stub onto my mouth every other day, instead of daily, and I’ve been hacking my mascara as a crude eyeliner for months now. (This is so embarrassing and I wish it weren’t true, but if you’re ever in an emergency, trust: you can use mascara as eyeliner. Just wibble the wand around the inside top edge of the tube, so it gets nice and thick, then make sure you hold your eyelid down hard while you poke at it. It’s not elegant but it gets the job done.) Anyway, I need some more cosmetics and that right speedily. My eyeliner is non-negotiable (L’Oreal 24 Hour Gel), but on the lipstick front, I’m thinking Burt’s Bees—moisturiser AND deep colour!—and maybe an Avon gloss stick. Any other recs? (Nb: my top limit for lipstick price is twenty quid. I absolutely refuse to pay more than that for what is basically face crayon.)
  4. Winter is always a difficult time for me to eat sensibly (“Why can’t we just order pizza like normals?” I shouted at the Chaos, as he cruelly forced me to stirfry some broccoli and mushrooms in soy sauce, in the name of getting some vitamins, this afternoon.) Anxiety this year has made it all the harder. I have a curious feeling that the new job is going to make a huge dent in the anxiety problem—I keep getting little bubbles of joy just thinking about it, which has to be a good sign—so I’m keeping an eye out for things I’d like to cook and eat soon. Spaghetti with lemon and olive oil is near the top of the list, followed by apple and honey cake from my Riverford cookbook.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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We were in Cornwall all last week, Airbnb’ing in a studio flat above a gallery on Barnoon Hill in St. Ives. So this week’s Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is Cornwall-themed!

  1. First things first, Cornwall is utterly beautiful. We went for a long walk one day and by the time we came back into town, the Chaos was saying things like “I could get a gig at Truro Cathedral” and peering in the windows of estate agents.
  2. St. Ives is famous for two things, primarily: being an outstandingly good-looking coastal town, and artists. Barbara Hepworth was one of them, a sculptor who moved down to Cornwall in the 1940s with her children and husband to escape the Blitz. She was a total boss—had triplets unexpectedly in rural nowheresville, divorced husband #1 after a few years, lived scandalously with husband #2 before actually getting hitched, competed with Henry Moore for commissions, and became such a part of the St. Ives community that she threatened to take the town council to court when they wanted to make the beautiful hill area into a massive car park. She was made a Dame in 1965. She died after a fire in her studio that started because she insisted on smoking in bed. The pictures of her make her look like a boss biddy, and I would like to write a novel about her. Her sculptures are also beautiful, powerful forms that were way ahead of their time.
  3. Speaking of novels, I didn’t write every day on holiday, but the days I did write were great: over 1,000 words every time. I’m also well past the 20,000-word mark. In fact, I missed it when it happened. The next benchmark will be 25,000, for which I need some suitable way to celebrate. Ideas welcome.
  4. Reading on holiday was great, but also awkward. I started Neal Stephenson’s magisterial (= 912-page) The System of the World in the train on the way down, which was utterly brilliant and absorbing but which took me three days. By then, I only had two days left, and, because I’m a twit, five more books in my suitcase. I ploughed on, read The Tailor of Panama, which was a fun little relaxing number, and most of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s second Cazalet book, Marking Time (which I’ve now finished). I am just going to read all of my planned holiday reading in the week after the actual holiday, I guess. (The others: Starship Troopers; Lolly Willowes; Hot Milk.)
  5. Cornwall has an unusually high proportion of Regionally Significant Foodstuffs: meat-and-potato pasties, Cornish clotted cream, “the cream tea” (scones + clotted cream + strawberry jam), ice cream, fudge. If you are in St. Ives, your range of options for pasties and fudge is immense—nearly every shop in the middle of town seems to sell one or the other, if not both. We can also personally attest to the deliciousness of bread from the St. Ives Bakery.
  6. The Chaos having the whole month of August off is great, in that he has a whole month off, and not great, in that he shares that month off with every wailing snot-nosed child in the United Kingdom. Most of these children had converged, with their drained and pinch-faced parents, on St. Ives. Having no children, we were able, mostly, to avoid them, except for going up and down Fore Street, where you just have to stare blankly into the middle distance until it’s all over.
  7. The St. Ives Bookseller is a gorgeous little independent bookshop at the very top of Fore Street. They’ve won best bookshop awards from The Bookseller in the last few years. We didn’t buy anything there, which was, as you can imagine, painful, but it’s a really nice place to browse, with well-selected content and interesting displays.

Of Games and Books: Now Play This at Somerset House

I don’t generally write about things that aren’t books, or book-related, here. That is, after all, my wheelhouse, and this has been an explicitly book-review-and-literary-chat site since the spring. Surprising as it may seem, however, I do other things too, and quite often they relate back in some form to literary concerns: narrative, story structure, style and elegance, determining the truth of a situation.

One of the things I have started to do is try and learn how to code, which can be deeply frustrating, but also deeply rewarding. Oddly, although my brain was engaged throughout my three-year degree, it was not engaged in at all the same way as coding forces it to engage. I wasn’t not thinking as an undergraduate, but I was not thinking like this. This kind of thinking is something I can almost feel. You know when people talk about being able to see the cogs turning in someone’s head? I expect if you looked at me while I was working through the basics of binary, or while I was trying to get the syntax of a regular expression right, that’s sort of what you’d see.

Relevant to coding, amongst other things, is the whole idea of games, playing, exploration. The beauty of games is that you don’t need to have spent a childhood glued to an Xbox, or even a particularly deep knowledge of mathematics or logic, to be able to appreciate them and to get some idea of the systems behind them. This weekend, Somerset House  was hosting a three-day exhibition called Now Play This, which was entirely devoted to games of all descriptions. The Chaos and I got a half-day pass (in actuality we spent about an hour and a half there, but at £5 I would say it was entirely worth it) and, on Saturday, went.

As far as I can tell, there are basically two types of games: the type where you can win, and want to, and the type where winning is incidental, if not impossible. Traditional board games fall into the former category—Monopoly, for instance, and chess, and so on—as do parlour games like Charades. (I would also argue that a subset I like to call Teenage Party Games—Spin the Bottle, Truth or Dare, Never Have I Ever—falls into this category, although in some of these, winning is losing.) There were plenty of traditional, winnable games on offer at Now Play This: a whole room was devoted to board games, while in another there was an enormous table maze and a set-up involving a strip of LED lights and a control toggle, which you could bounce back and forth in order to advance your little green light and defeat the oncoming enemy red lights. There were also a couple of traditional, winnable video games, including one called Sagittarius which involved trying to use the gravitational pull exerted by planets to propel your weapon and shoot your opponent. If we’re honest, though, I’ve always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with traditional games. This is partly because I’m both very competitive and very impatient. I wish I were a natural chess player, but I can’t think five moves ahead. I want to just win already. The only game I ever really enjoy, come Christmas time, is Charades, and mostly that’s because I’m good at guessing. (Being forced to act in Charades, by contrast, is hellish.)

What’s really fascinating, then, is the second type of game, the type that you’re not necessarily trying to win, and where winning might not be the purpose of the exercise at all. Now Play This excelled in demonstrating these sorts of games. Many of them are designed in order to force you (or rather, encourage you) to explore an environment, whether it be the one you’re currently in or the one that the game places you in. In the first room we entered, for instance, there was a set of headphones and a small Nintendo handheld control. Depending on how you moved the control—speed, direction, and so on—different soundscapes would emanate from the headphones. The game itself, I think, was flawed in its implementation: the sounds weren’t easily differentiable, there didn’t seem to be very many of them, and the connection between your movements and the sounds being produced was unclear in practice. In theory, though, it’s obviously fascinating: you get to explore the geography of a place that doesn’t exist in the realm of the visual. It’s a completely different take on how we occupy space.

In another room, there was a two-person tent, with a projector inside that was throwing lights onto the tent’s ceiling. We crawled in, after waiting for the two people currently occupying it to crawl out, and found a MIDI controller. Using its sliders and buttons, it transpired, changed the pattern, orientation, and speed of the light designs being projected onto the ceiling. It’s a terribly simple idea, but it has almost infinite possibilities in terms of variation. It doesn’t look like a game in the traditional sense of the word, but what it does is get you to learn some basic behaviours—slide this slider up and the colour changes; slide this one down and you alter the design—and then use that creatively to alter your environment. You have the potential to alter your environment radically, if you choose. I didn’t realize this fully until a young man with a lip ring crawled into the tent between us, apparently undeterred by the limited space (this is one of the other great things about Now Play This: you make quite a few temporary friends). While I had been content with the sliders, assuming that the other buttons would have been disabled, he hit the controller’s Record button, then Pause, then begin twirling a few dials. Instantly, more interesting things began to happen. You learn as you play, then, not to assume that you know the parameters of a game before you’ve tried them.

One of the best aspects of the exhibition was a room with small index cards, on which was printed the challenge “Can you design a game that you can explain in 128 characters?”* There were pens scattered about the table. People had taken up the challenge with alacrity, both in person and online; there were printouts of tweeted responses to this question pinned to the wall. Games, I discovered while looking at them, don’t have to be complicated. It seems as though the opposite is primarily true: the simpler something is, at least to begin with, the more you can do with it. (The best instance of this is the glorious invention of Calvinball, from the late and lamented comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Calvinball is distinguished by having no rules, or rather, by having rules which you make up on the spot and alter at will. There is a ball involved; other than that, anything goes.) It is also evident that games are sometimes not easily distinguishable from behaviours more readily associated with pathological instability. One of the suggested games, for instance, involved determining which cardinal direction—north, south, east, or west—was the most dangerous, and then spending an entire day endeavouring to keep at least one object between you and your chosen horizon. “A window doesn’t count,” the designer noted. I spent a moment imagining this game, and concluded that, for the right player, it could quickly become an all-out obsession.

11947862_10204876154039610_5556384717864210513_oThis explains, I suppose, why people who think about maths and infinity and game environments do often become a little unhinged. (Either that, or they already are.) Games can be a kind of controlled experiment in altering your state of mind; a mental illness, in some senses, is a game that you can’t stop playing. I am thinking in particular of what happened to me when I lived alone for two months in Oxford; in order to keep some level of structure, I began to obsessively plan out a daily schedule, including strict times of day at which I was permitted to eat, read, shower, and go to sleep. If I deviated from this schedule by more than about five minutes at a time, I became anxious and stressed. To begin with, it looked very much like a game; by the end, it was driving me mad.

Since I am still, of course, a book person, my immediate response to this has been to read around it. I already have James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games; I’d also like to read more around Alan Turing, one of whose major papers I read a few months ago (understood about 30% of it, which means there’s nowhere to go but up), and while we’re on the subject of play, codes, and code breaking, I bought Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon today. (I was in Hatchards. I was, sadly, escorted out before I could throw all of my money over the counter.)

Oh, and I’ll keep you all up to date on the progress of my quest to code. You may be pleased to know that I sorted out the regular expression, in the end.

*The Chaos, in grand style, responded to this by writing, “Can you design a game that you can implement in 128 characters?”

In 2013, I have

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2013, I have:

climbed a fell

taken a Virgin train first class, for free (!)

given a speech at Burns Night

done four live radio broadcasts from Manchester, over a week during which, apart from the broadcasts, I did nothing except revise medieval dream poetry and watch baking shows with the Duchess

learned to lay a fire

gotten naked–for the children (and it’s not often you hear someone say that) (aka participated in the naked calendar produced by ExVac, Exeter College’s own charity which takes disadvantaged children for a week’s holiday in the spring vac)

woken up at 5:30 a.m. for May morning

drunk red wine in a mortarboard

This happened.

This happened.

contemplated suicide

revised for Finals

worn a corset in public

commissioned a dress

sat Finals

been trashed

graduated from university

applied to do postgraduate work, and been rejected, and been devastated about that, and then been kind of okay with it

swum naked in the Adriatic

danced in an Italian bar until two in the morning

Fano

sung Bruckner motets for bewildered but enthusiastic Italians, also at two in the morning

read seventy-nine books (beginning to end)

bought twenty-three secondhand books

met Philip Pullman, and chatted about The Faerie Queene with him

watched all three series of Game of Thrones

moved house

become identifiable by sight at Gloucester Green book stall

walked on the North York Moors

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become unwittingly hooked on The Great British Bake Off (shoot shag marry: shoot Mel and Sue, shag Paul, marry Mary. Obviously.)

written eighteen different cover letters for job applications

interned in London, twice

joined Pottermore, and done absolutely nothing on it

discovered that the five-year plan I thought I had isn’t actually the five-year plan I want, and changed it accordingly

laughed so hard I spat water all over the kitchen

cried so hard I couldn’t see the next day

landed a job

gone out every night in a week

...and they all had red eye, The End

…and they all had red eye, The End

created a graph in Microsoft Excel

started to write poetry again, and submit it

won a mention in the Southwest Review’s poetry competition

cooked a Christmas dinner

flown home for the first time in a year

bought alcohol without being carded (in the States, no less)

started to realize that you can be happy and uncertain at the same time.

skeptical amiability

skeptical amiability

Happy New Year’s, you guys. I hope that Santa brought you everything you asked for, that your New Year’s Eve is safe if not sober, and that the coming twelvemonth (a word that needs bringing back) is good to you!

Happy New Year from (most of) L'Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who's taking the picture)

Happy New Year from (most of) L’Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who’s taking the picture)